Romeo Okwara woke up on Wednesday morning just like every other day. He rubbed his eyes, stretched a bit and checked his phone.
That’s when he knew that day was going to be a little bit different.
Waiting for him on his social media scroll was an Instagram photo posted by teammate Jason Pierre-Paul. The starting defensive end, the most senior member of the unit, the only starting defender to have won a Super Bowl with the Giants, was dressed in hospital scrubs, ready to be wheeled into surgery to repair a sports hernia.
There had been talk that JPP might need the procedure, and there certainly had been concern for his well-being since he left the game against the Steelers with a groin injury last Sunday. But seeing that picture brought it all home for Okwara.
So, too, did lining up with the starting defense in practice later that day.
Pierre-Paul will miss four to six weeks while recovering from his surgery, and Okwara, an undrafted rookie from Notre Dame, realized he will be a big part of replacing him on the field.
“Yeah,” he said with a chuckle after that Wednesday workout with the first team. “I’d say so.”
Up until now, Okwara has been a rotational player and a special teams contributor. It was he, you may recall, who blocked the punt against Washington that nearly won the game for the Giants but was negated by a penalty away from the ball. That has been his shining moment thus far.
Then, when Pierre-Paul left just before halftime against the Steelers, Okwara and Kerry Wynn had to split the rest of the reps.
Now he goes into the Giants’ biggest game of the season, against the best offensive line in football, and likely will make his first NFL start.
He was a starter in high school, a two-year starter in college. But this?
“Starting in the NFL,” he said, “is a whole different story.”
Okwara’s life has been, in some ways, a whole different story.
First there’s the name, which is not, as most would suspect, based on Shakespeare’s leading man. Every coach and teammate he’s ever had, he said, has asked him: “Wherefore art thou?”
In reality, he is named after rock musician Lenny Kravitz, a favorite of his father’s. Before Kravitz hit it big, he used a stage name: Romeo Blue. That’s where Okwara’s name comes from.
As for where Okwara himself comes from, he was born in 1995 and spent the first 10 years of his life in Nigeria. He moved to the United States — Charlotte, North Carolina, to be exact — in 2005 and enrolled in the sixth grade.
He became mesmerized by the ways and pace of American life. He was fascinated by the food. He acclimated to school, where he was a very young sixth-grader.
“It was a little bit of a culture shock being in a different country,” he said. “Nigeria and the United States are obviously pretty different countries. But I think I transitioned pretty well.”
And, for the first time, he saw a sport called football.
The Panthers were the first team he rooted for, and he watched Julius Peppers and Steve Smith play, mimicking them as best he could. “They were good guys to have as role models,” he said, noting that both still are playing in the NFL.
In seventh grade, he made his middle school football team, but the following year, he was cut.
“I wasn’t really good,” he said of his novice skills and nascent knowledge of the sport. “It was my first year playing football.”
He grew about six inches before heading to high school, though, and also matured.
“I think my mindset was a lot different from middle school to high school,” he said. “I set goals in my head going into high school. [Playing football] was one of my goals.”
It’s not exactly like Michael Jordan failing to make his high school varsity basketball team as a sophomore, but that experience clearly drove Okwara through high school and all the way to Notre Dame. Asked why he stuck with it after getting cut, he paused to reflect.
“I always loved the game, I enjoyed watching it,” he said. “Quitting is not really in my repertoire.”
‘LET’S DO THIS THING’
Okwara was so young that in January, when he signed with an agent after college, his parents had to co-sign the document because he was only 20 years old. But he has grown before the Giants’ eyes.
“Romeo is a young guy that was kind of a surprise when he came here,” defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo said. “He’s got some length, he’s a smart football player, high-effort guy. I think he’ll give us some productive snaps and he has big shoes to fill.”
On Sunday, he’ll take the next step in his maturation.
“He made the team for a reason: He’s a pretty good player,” defensive tackle Damon Harrison said. “We watch him every day. I wouldn’t be worried at all if I had to line up next to Romeo.”
He won’t have to do it all himself. He, Wynn and possibly Owa Odighizuwa will rotate in what Ben McAdoo called an “all hands on deck” approach.
“It’s time for those guys to step up,” Spagnuolo said. “I think that they’ll face the challenge. We’ll see what we come up with, but we are going to let those guys go out there and roll.”
Okwara will have the support of the coaches and his veteran teammates. In some ways, he’ll also have the support of Pierre-Paul himself.
While that picture Pierre-Paul posted on Wednesday morning was an eye-opener for the entire Giants-rooting world, the words under the photograph only later caught Okwara’s attention.
“Let’s do this thing,” Pierre-Paul wrote, ready to be wheeled into the operating room.
It likely was intended as a message for himself, his doctors and nurses, and his first step in a recovery.
But it also, in some ways, was a call to action for Okwara.
DE, No. 78
Born: June 17, 1995, in Nigeria (age 21)
Vitals: 6-5, 265
College: Notre Dame
Acquired: 2016 undrafted free agent